Trans Am have trapped you in a Tron-like universe and Thing is the robot in a business suit sent to save you. On closer inspection, the real concept of the record isn’t quite what I imagined–humbug–but it’s just as spacey. The first track, “Please Wait,” cuddles us with the galactic monotone of an intercom listing delays in the echo chamber of a busy travel hub. Soon thereafter, the fat, buzzing synth of late-80s sci-fi slays without delay as archaic, computerized vocals repeat, “Here we go again,” and the album prepares for takeoff.
The Maryland synth post-rock trio has changed nothing in the way of mechanized beats and bumps since their 1996 self-titled record, but what’s different here is the way the band sends them off. The April 20th release of Thing on ThrillJockey continues to expand the genre-bending experimentation of the Bethesda rockers who have always rejected boundaries and welcomed the open-minded music fan.
Most pleasing to the ear is when a band finds their instruments. It’s the best discovery that can come to an experimental band’s progression, and arguably the most sought. Thing has seen through the changeover from guitars to synthesizers, and bass guitars to strange, low, wobbles whose origin escape me. The drums are still organic as grandma’s potatoes though, and that’s really refreshing. The rhythm section’s technicality in the face of the accompanying electronic precision should be lauded, showing a clear value for the skill involved in live performance, and an old-fashioned musician’s respect for the unplugged instrument. The back-and-forth talk between drums and electronics mimic the conversation of human to its machine counterpart, and ground the listener in reminders of where this music is still coming from. At times the band will ease off the vocoders to reveal the raw whisper of the humans behind them, and we’re allowed through the thin veil of artificiality.
The band’s sound hints at heaviness in the middle track, ‘Heaven’s Gate’–which warms my metal heart–but they don’t much revisit it until the end of the record’s ‘Space Port,’ where the drone of otherworldly bass melodies are indiscernible as either effects-blown guitar or hearty software-fed bass-monsters. On following listens, I wanted more of these intermittent explosions of pure analog, as the guitars and other traditional elements are overpowered on most of the record and the group is usually doing more with the other sounds.
Gripes a listener might have when listening to Thing is that they’ll feel like they’re stumbling into a sandbox of vintage synthesizers and 8-inch floppy disks, the ringleaders plunged full body into the fun of sound experimentation and rarely coming up for air. I didn’t know whether to listen to this album as a soundtrack to my old videogames or as a serious progressive concept album. Has the band lost their way as a rock group, or have they torn away the tethers so many have always wanted to tangle them in, assuming a nobler stance often shared among experimental artists–one which discards the idea of precise judgment?
The listener shouldn’t hold Trans Am accountable for their own expectations, as doing so would be missing the fruit in the yogurt. The fun of this cohesive concept album of wild galactics and AI is in not knowing where the sounds are coming from, or for what reason. The awards are already won when the spark of imagination is lit in the listener’s mind. You might audibly yell “No!” as I did at the end of the album, when the last track of the 38 minutes of the record abruptly yanks you out of Thing’s world. Trans Am doesn’t necessarily want you to be able to pinpoint the details at all times, they just want you to get lost in their space. And lost is something you can achieve when you pick up Thing, available now online and in finer
record shops everywhere.
The band is currently touring Europe after having finished a quick run in the American Northeast, so to any international readers, SKOPE out a list of tour dates on the band’s website, http://www.transband.com, and let Trans Am sling you into orbit.
By: Sean Flynn[Rating: 3.5/5]